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On the emotional toll of the academic job market

As months in the academic job market calendar go, for me, March was always the worst.

There’s a lot of competition for that title, so that’s saying something. It’s possible that you didn’t get any long-list interviews at all in a given year, in which case November, December, and January are one long parade of disappointment. That never happened to me but I can imagine that it well and truly sucks. If you did get long-list interviews, January and February are probably when you’d have your short-list interviews, if you were successful in that first round, or you might be in one of those limbo situations where you weren’t invited for the campus visit but also not rejected (yet). March and April are when most hiring decisions for TT jobs will be made. By then most NTT jobs will have been advertised, though those jobs can keep trickling in through the summer. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few; but more likely, you’re not. You may continue to apply for temporary positions and things may work out, hopefully sooner rather than later — because you continue to live under various degrees of existential dread while your future is uncertain. If you’re a US citizen, you may keep hoping for a job until the very last minute; as a non-citizen, you realize that visas take time and somewhere around May or June it becomes untenable to keep hoping. So somewhere around June-August you will definitely know if you’ve finally been pushed out of the profession. That sucks, too.

Either way, March is when you are most likely to know if you will have a stable future in the profession, or if you are bound to have a(nother) year of precarity, or maybe not even that. If October-November is when hopes are at their highest — jobs being advertised and applications submitted — this is when it all comes crashing down.

For 5 of my 6 job market cycles, March was when the lowest of the lows hit. (On the 6th and last one, I went on the non-academic market, and things worked out much better.) It was when one decision after another was made, and each one pushed me further into despair. And when I say despair, I really mean a deep, dark hole that would take months to climb out of each year. I tried not to get too invested in the jobs I was short-listed for, but I would do a lot of research ahead of each interview. I learned about the faculty and students, the university, the town, housing, options for recreation and family, transportation, cost of living — I was always prepared. And so when the rejection came, I had a whole imagined future shattered and one fewer option open to me. There were few options to begin with; and some rejections really hurt.

At the same time, some of my friends and colleagues would write “thrilled to announce” posts. I was almost always truly happy for them (the very occasional “him? really??” notwithstanding). I understand that there are by far many more qualified candidates than jobs, and that hiring decisions are complex, to say the least. It doesn’t make it hurt any less. Also at the same time, you’re supposed to somehow keep on doing your teaching and your research, to maintain continuity even as you realize you’re likely going to have to move and start over in the next few months. Where? Dunno, but not where you’re at now. Doing what? Dunno, hopefully the same research as before and at least similar teaching, but who knows if you’ll have a job at all, let alone the resources to support your research. I stopped doing experimental work pretty soon after graduating for this reason. Which affected job options in the years that followed. But, I digress.

There is a point when you start thinking that as good and qualified as you may be, you may simply never be gainfully employed in your chosen career — the one you spent the better part of a decade, maybe more, specializing in. The network you’ve built, the community you have, the skills you’ve developed, you may lose them or they may not be able to support you going forward. It’s unclear where to go from there and how to bear the disappointment. Mentors, advisors, colleagues, friends, family – you may have a lot of supporters in your corner (Reader, I hope that you do!), but at the end of the day, kind words and lofty promises of what you deserve or what next year might bring just aren’t enough.

In a sense, I feel like I was pushed out and there was nothing I could do about it. But for my own sanity, the story I tell myself is that I chose to leave. I probably could have taken another non-permanent position and tried again another year. Or I could have applied more broadly, rather than being as picky as I was about the location and type of department I was willing to work in. But I just couldn’t keep doing that. I chose the timing and the parameters for leaving. I had been planning it for a year and spent about a semester actively prepping. I also went through a prolonged mourning process of coming to terms with what was probably going to happen, all the while continuing to hope until the very last minute.

Eventually I think I ended up in a better place than I could have imagined, and I’m very happy with my new path. It doesn’t make the losses hurt any less. I have various posts on my blog about how to start thinking about other career paths and how to actively prep and apply for them. But I’m not linking to any of them here, because this post is here to say that it’s ok to mourn, to be sad and angry and disappointed and lost and unsure about what comes next. March was always that time for me. If you’re reading this and it’s that time for you, I hope that you at least know that you’re not alone and that it’s ok to feel what you’re feeling. There will be time for action later. You can just be sad now.